Multi-talented Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster epitomizes role balance, on and off stage

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (photo by Peirre Gautreau)

As I’m reviewing the notes from my interview with Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, a distracting ding interrupts. It’s the day’s newsletter from Playbill.com, so I take my usual cursory scan – and do a double take when I see a production photo from Spoon River and this caption below it: “Soulpepper Theatre Company prepares to make its U.S. debut with a season of new plays and musicals Off-Broadway.”

So…it really is time to “start spreading the news.”

Lancaster is currently appearing in Soulpepper’s Toronto revival of Spoon River, the Dora-Award-winning musical she has been a part of since its inception. The show has proven enormously popular with local and national audiences, and I expect it will also stir American hearts this July, when it makes its US premiere in New York City as part of Soulpepper on 42nd Street: Canada Crosses the Border, a month-long festival of Soulpepper’s most celebrated productions. The multi-skilled Lancaster will be a part of this epic journey: along with Spoon River, in which she moves seamlessly among multiple roles, songs and instruments, she will also appear in Vern Thiessen’s Of Human Bondage, which won a 2014 Dora Award for Best Ensemble.

An acclaimed performer on stage and screen, she is a resident artist at Soulpepper and a current member of the esteemed Artistic Director’s Cabinet, as well as an artist-educator and writer. So we have no end of things to talk about! We start with the New York-bound Spoon River and Alligator Pie, two unique Soulpepper musical creations that continue to resonate hugely with audiences of all ages. Lancaster attributes their success to their “incredible, rich music”. She explains that Mike Ross composed the score for Spoon River and had a big hand in the music for Alligator Pie, along with co-creators, Ken MacKenzie, Raquel Duffy, Ins Choi and Gregory Prest. “It is filled with hints from all kinds of genres, jazz, bluegrass, big band, even opera,” she enthuses. “It’s so satisfying!”

And different though the shows are, they are both resonant celebrations of life: “In the case of Alligator Pie, the show is pure, concentrated childhood. The performers tap into their inner children,” she observes, “ and I think adults and children alike recognize themselves in the show when they see it.” And Spoon River, a musical adaptation of Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic elegy to small-town life, is an “always thoughtful, sometimes sad, sometimes raucously joyful exploration of what life is about, from the perspective of the dead.” On the night that my family and I see Spoon River, I experience firsthand the adjectives and musical styles she has described at work. The performance is the theatrical equivalent of a superb rock concert: each performer holds nothing back and leaves everything on the stage. And the audience responds in kind: unreservedly laughing, clapping, swaying and tapping their toes before leaping to their feet after the final number.

Spoon River Ensemble, Soulpepper 2017 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

It’s not just that the music is fantastic (which it is). It’s that we watch it being lovingly produced on stage, before our eyes – rather than hearing it, disembodied, played by adroit musicians invisible to the audience and separated from the performers on stage. That the cast members are each other’s accompanists deepens the communal feeling that is so central to the spirit of Spoon River. It also requires extraordinary versatility from its cast. Lancaster, for example, switches effortlessly from embodying one heart-tugging character to another, and by turns also sings, plays piano, ukulele and the flute. What’s more: most of the cast are on stage at the same time, which makes them privy to each other’s performances at pivotal moments. And even though Lancaster is in character, I can see that these performances – which she has seen countless times before – still affect her.   

Lancaster’s versatility and sympathy extend off stage and in various directions. She has long been involved with the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Learning Through the Arts program, which connects artist-educators with classroom teachers to enrich the curriculum through arts integration. She is also an active participant in a volunteer organization called Kensington Assistance for Refugees, a sponsor group that has raised money to support a family of Syrian refugees in Toronto. This venture has incited “equal parts pride and anxiety” in her: “I say anxiety because we are still waiting for our family to arrive – it’s a slow moving process, and when it does happen, we will likely only have a couple of weeks to spring into action and secure housing. Pride, because we’ve already raised the money, and it has been a real growth for our little group, learning more about this process and about our own capabilities.”

At Soulpepper, Lancaster is also part of the Artistic Director’s Cabinet (in fact, its youngest member), and it’s a role she deems “an education.” She regards it as a “great opportunity to learn about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of running a large theatre company.” This year, her task is to program content that encourages leadership by emerging artists of the Asian diaspora. This includes play readings, concerts and development workshops throughout the year. She admits that it’s been awhile since she’s undertaken this kind of curatorial role . . . and that this is a source of considerable excitement. In the years ahead, Lancaster would like to expand further the scope of her creative work: “Acting is always at the center of what I want to be doing,” she muses, “but I would also like to be ‘in charge’ more often, be it through directing, writing, or devising content.” To that end, she in the early stages of creating a couple of projects with collaborators, inside and outside of Soulpepper.

Gregory Prest, Sarah Wilson, Raquel Duffy, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lilico in Of Human Bondage, Soulpepper 2014 (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

I marvel at her energy and her ability to juggle the demands of career with community outreach and family life. “Honestly, I struggle to find balance,” she sighs. “Often when I have a bit of time on my hands, I over-compensate by starting far too many projects!” This has meant learning to say no more often, and also prioritizing time with her husband and family. Despite this, she admits that the question, “how to feel that you’re still an actor?” remains a pivotal one. Her response has been to set the goal of “one thing every day,” selecting one activity that makes her feel like an artist and feeds her “creative hunger.” This activity, like any project she elects to undertake, is tactically chosen: “Well, I’m working on really focusing on the things that truly interest me and learning to turn down opportunities that I’m tempted to do solely because I feel like I should.”

Which brings us full circle to her compelling performance in Spoon River and upcoming trip to New York. Neither, it is clear, is rooted in reluctant obligation. Having seen Spoon River evolve from an idea to a fully-developed show, it holds a special place in her heart. (You can read about this in her essay on the front of the playbill for the show – and you will easily see yet another reason why should you come see this incredibly soul-stirring celebration of life.) And thinking about the upcoming tour, it is Of Human Bondage that she is most curious to see NYC audiences respond to. “We’ve run the show three times now in Toronto, and because the entire cast is on stage for most of the performance, we have a really good sense of how the audience is responding,” she says. “We can hear them gasp or laugh or murmur. I wonder if NYC audiences will feel the same way about it!”

In the final number of Spoon River, the graveyard inhabitants filling the stage fix the audience in their gaze, and challenge  them. “Is your soul alive? Then let it feed!” they sing to the living, with insistence and urgency.

My advice to audiences in New York and Toronto?  Feed on these productions and the rich performances of Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and her fellow company. Then you’ll know you’re alive for sure.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster (photo by Gordon Dumka)

News You Can Use

What: Spoon River based on The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultzfeaturing Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Hailey Gillis, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis, Richard Lam, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Jeff Lillico, Diego Matamoros, Michelle Monteith, Miranda Mulholland, Gregory Prest, Jackie Richardson, Mike Ross, Paolo Santalucia, Brendan Wall, Sarah Wilson, Daniel Williston; music direction, composition and arrangements by Mike Ross; directed by Albert Schultz, assisted by Erin Brandenburg

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: On stage until April 21, 2017

Where: Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON, M5A 3C4

FYI: Soulpepper on 42nd Street

© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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